Insights into Genesis
Is mankind on the brink of destruction? You sometimes wonder. Asteroids zooming past the earth, psychopaths opening fire in schools and subways, Persian Gulf tensions looming on the horizon...you need a lot of bitachon to read the newspapers and not go insane with worry.
At the start of this week's portion, the Torah records an awesome moment in universal history when mankind was truly on the brink of destruction:
"And G-d saw the earth, and behold--it was corrupted, for all flesh had corrupted its way upon the earth. And G-d said to Noach, 'The end of all flesh has come before me, for the earth is filled with robbery through them, and behold, I am going to destroy them from the earth.'" ( Chapter 6, verse 12-13; Artscroll Chumash, p. 31)
The earth was corrupted, and full of robbery, or chamas. (Do I need to point out the eerie similarity between that Hebrew word and a certain modern terrorist organization?) To gain a deeper understanding of the nature of the world's corruption in Noach's time, we must turn to Rashi and other great commentators, all solidly grounded in the oral tradition.
Back in Parshas Bereishis, the Torah had already mentioned the practices of the dor hamabul, the generation of the Flood. "And the sons of the rulers saw that the daughters of man were good..." (Chapter 6, verse 2) Rashi quotes the Midrash stating that after a bride was adorned in preparation for her chupah, a gadol (important person) would enter and have relations with her first. These leaders were not satisfied merely with abusing young maidens, apparently, for the end of the very same possuk states, "...and they took for themselves wives from whomever they chose." Rashi explains this last, seemingly superfluous phrase: "Even a woman already married; even men and animals."
It seems that sexual immorality was a characteristic "corruption" of the time. Notice, further, the strange fact that the verse in Parshas Noach, quoted above, states, "...all flesh had corrupted its way upon the earth." Had immorality extended beyond the human realm? Apparentlhy so: Rashi quotes the Talmud's statement that even animals and birds were "intermarrying," mating with others outside their own species!
What can this mean?! Animals surely do not have free will, as humans do! The Beis Halevi explains that this is how far man's actions on earth reverberate: even with our private sins, we influence--and can alter--the behavior of the animals, and the very nature of the world at large, strengthening (in the case of this parsha) the force of unbridled lust in the Creation! We see here a most stark illustration of the famous words of Rav Moshe Chayim Luzzatto, in Mesilas Yesharim (The Path of the Just):
"Man stands in [the center of] a great balance. For if he is pulled after the [physical] world, becoming distanced from his Creator, behold--he becomes degenerate, and he brings about the degeneration of the world along with him." (Chapter 1)
With our moral behavior, we uplift or degrade the whole world! The lesson is clear: if we want to be kind to the animals, and the rest of the universe, we'd better stop being animals ourselves!
But sexual immorality alone was not, apparently, the decisive factor in sealing the fate of that generation and bringing about the Flood. In explaining to Noach why the end was at hand, Hashem says, "...for the earth is filled with robbery (chamas)." Robbery, it seems, was the "final straw." As Rashi explains, "Their decree was only sealed because of stealing (gezel)."
Before we can fully understand why this was so, we need to examine the word, chamas. The normal word in the Holy Tongue for "stealing" is, gezel, and we would have expected the Torah to employ it here in the first place. The Targum Onkelos (the classic Aramaic translation of the Torah) translates chamas as, "chatofin" --grabbing, which does not suggest taking money necessarily. In fact, the Talmud distinguishes between gezel and chamas, explaining that gezel refers to taking something forcibly from someone, while chamas denotes taking by force, but paying the value: I steal your computer from right in front of you, but I toss you a check as I walk out the door.
Does this mean that the people in Noach's time actually stole and paid...as the word, chamas, suggests? The great Jewish thinker, Maharal, thinks not, but he ingeniously explains that the Torah uses the word, chamas, instead of gezel, because stealing was so pervasive that everyone ended up getting back the equivalent of what was stolen from them: I grab from you, and you take your "pay" by grabbing from me! Universal gezel results in chamas. (See Gur Aryeh on 6, 12)
We see that the grabbing of that generation had little to do, ultimately, with net monetary gain; rather, it was an end unto itself. A famous Midrash underscores this very point:
"A man would bring out a basket full of peas. One person would come and take less than the worth of a p'rutah [a small coin], and another one would come and take less than the worth of a p'rutah, so that he [the man with the peas] would not be able to get anything back from each one who took [since the courts would not punish for such an insignifigant amount]. (Bereishis Rabbah: 31, 5)
It is not hard to grasp, now, why this passion for grabbing was the evil that sealed their fate, moreso even than the sexual perversity or idol worship. Chamas postively destroys social and economic relations, eliminating the possibility of any collective life--every man becomes a terrorist, warring against his neighbors.
Therefore, the people themselves, the Maharal writes, were the primary destroyers of the world, not Hashem; Hashem responded, measure for measure, by bringing the decree of the Flood and finishing their work.
And so G-d washed away the world. One individual was chosen, along with his family, to make a fresh start for humankind. G-d put them on an ark, along with the living creatures who were preserved with them. For a full year, day and night, Noach and his family had to tend to the different needs of each of the hundreds of thousands of animals. As Rav Eliyahu Dessler, zt'l, beautifully points out, Hashem was thereby laying the foundation of the new world on chesed (lovingkindness), the trait that was the very opposite of the egoism that brought down the old world.
As the waters surged outside the ark, Noach was busy learning that the only path to fulfillment--and survival--in this world is giving, not grabbing.
Rabbi Yosef Edelstein, Savannah Kollel. Phone: 355-0157; fax: 354-9923; e-mail address: Yosef18@aol.com
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